One of the most common “talking points” in political speeches, media commentary and “coffee shop” conversations during election season is about “small government” versus “big government.”
We are told that conservatives (Republicans) are for “small government,” while progressives (Democrats) are for “big government.”

For example, Mitt Romney’s website states that “President Obama has put our nation on an unsustainable course,” and so he (Romney) will promote “smaller, smarter, simpler government” by “balancing the budget, reducing the size and reach of the federal government, and returning power to the states and the people.”

This dichotomy is set forth so often that perhaps most of America has come to believe it is true.

Yet, as the adage goes, “saying or believing something is true does not necessarily make it so.”

In spite of all the rhetoric, I believe the debate between Republicans and Democrats is not ultimately a battle to decide whether the United States has “small” or “big” government.

Rather, I believe the debate is about where and how the national government should be “big” and where and how it should be “small.”

An August 2006 article in The Freeman – a journal published by the Foundation for Economic Education that promotes free-market, classic liberalism – reports that that from 1791 to 1931, revenue exceeded budget expenses 70 percent of the time.

By contrast, over the past 75 years – FDR to George W. Bush – U.S. budget expenses have exceeded revenue 90 percent of the time.

To place these latter figures in historical context, it should be noted that since the election of Lincoln that coincided with the emergence of the modern-day Republican GOP, there have been 29 presidents: 18 Republicans and 12 Democrats.

More precisely, in the past 75 years cited by The Freeman article, there have been 12 presidents: 6 Republicans and 6 Democrats.

Given this relative balance of power between the two dominant parties, when considering government spending in the post-WWII era, it seems that both Republicans and Democrats prefer a form of “big government” resulting in deficit increases.

Thus, no matter how much it is said or how fervently it is believed, it is simply not accurate to suggest that one party is for small government while another is for big government.

Thus, those who characterize the upcoming presidential election as a choice between small government and big government are misleading themselves and the electorate.

The historical reality is that both Republicans and Democrats have been (and continue to be) for both “big government” and “small government” in so far as they want a stronger national government in certain areas and a weaker national government in other areas.

In fact, every party, politician and citizen of this country wants a national government that is both big and small. Thus, the question is not if, but where we want a strong, big national government.

When it comes to personal finances, your checkbook is the best way to determine your priorities. You spend the most on that which is most important to you.

The same is true in government finances, which means that the best way for the electorate to decide on a party or a candidate that is most closely aligned with their ideology is to look at the party or politician’s “checkbook” (i.e., their proposed budgets) while choosing to ignore the rhetoric about choosing between “big” government liberals and “small” government conservatives.

Zach Dawes is an ordained minister who lives in Austin, Texas, having served churches in Georgia and North Carolina. He blogs here.

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